In the middle of the Governor’s Conference Room at the State Capitol is a sturdy wooden table donated by former Governor George Donaghey in 1935. It was constructed from a walnut tree planted by Donaghey’s father, Columbus, in Conway 60 years earlier.
Even if he wanted, Gov. Asa Hutchinson could not possibly fit all his Cabinet officers around it. But if he has his way, in 2020 he or the next governor could, if someone brought in half a dozen extra chairs around the perimeter.
Hutchinson on Wednesday announced a plan to reduce the number of cabinet-level state agencies from a sprawling 42 to a manageable 15. Doing so would make the governor's cabinet the same size as the president's.
The idea is to combine separate agencies that have related missions under one official who reports to the governor. The change would allow those agencies to better coordinate their efforts and share resources.
For example, the plan would combine the Department of Education (grades K-12), the Department of Higher Education (colleges and universities), and the Department of Career Education (job training). Instead of three separate agencies, there would be one, with a shared mission. The state’s pre-K program also would be included.
Meanwhile, more than 200 boards and commissions currently floating around state government would be folded into these larger departments. Fifteen health-related ones would move into the Department of Health.
The reorganization process began after Hutchinson took office in 2015. Along the way, he formed a Transformation Advisory Board to help him identify reforms. The effort will require legislation passing in the 2019 legislative session.
State government last was reorganized in 1972, when the number of agencies shrunk from 60 to 13 under Gov. Dale Bumpers. The number has ballooned since then. It’s become an unwieldy arrangement for any governor, but especially one like Hutchinson who likes things tidy. He noted that meetings of his entire cabinet occur “maybe once a quarter” in a large room like the Great Hall in the Governor’s Mansion, which is really designed for public events.
Hutchinson said at one point a staff member told him a commission couldn’t even be located. The governor had never heard of it. It turned out the director wasn’t showing up for work, and the board wasn’t meeting enough to offer effective oversight. During one recent meeting, he asked a commission official when last they had stepped foot in the governor’s office. The answer: Never, in four years. Hutchinson told that person the reorganization would place them in one of those 15 cabinet agencies and give them more access to him.
The reorganization would take effect in 2020 and ideally would make state government more efficient. The Department of Finance and Administration conservatively estimated it would save the state $15 million a year. Hutchinson said none of the 25,000 employees involved in those agencies would be eliminated. However, employment would fall through attrition, meaning as some employees leave, they wouldn’t be replaced. He noted that these various commissions all have conference rooms, funded by taxpayers, that sit empty except for one meeting every month or two. That space could instead be shared.
The announcements occurred about a month before the election, and Hutchinson’s opponents naturally were critical. Democrat Jared Henderson said the plan “rearranges” existing problems. Libertarian Mark West said the governor is “shuffling the deck.”
Gov. Mike Huckabee also tried to reorganize state government, but that effort failed. However, Democrats controlled the Legislature then, and he and they often didn’t get along. Hutchinson’s Legislature is controlled by his own Republican Party.
Four years after his election, he is still getting most of what he wants. He’ll probably get most of this, too, but there will be turf wars in and out of the Legislature. Agencies’ and commissions' defenders will argue their missions will be devalued if they are swallowed up by a larger department.
This change would effect 25,000 state employees, including currently cabinet-level directors whose occupants would add “deputy” or “assistant” to their job titles. Hutchinson said he hasn't made any personnel decisions; the legislation must pass first.
Assuming it does and he is governor in 2020, one of the most challenging parts of his job will be deciding who gets to sit around the big table, and who doesn’t.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.